How did I never know about this film? It's brilliant!
It's a Pinky Violence film. (That's not Nikkatsu Roman Porno, by the way. Same era, but a different studio.) Toie moved into sexploitation in 1971 and their pink output included some films with a theme of strong women taking revenge on men. That's Pinky Violence. It included film series like Girl Boss, Delinquent Girl Boss and Terrifying Girls' High School. Toie also did "women in prison" films (the Scorpion films) and even nunsploitation (School of the Holy Beast).
There were two big Pinky Violence stars in this era: Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto. They were stars throughout the 1970s, then dropped out of the movie business almost simultaneously at the end of the decade. Sugimoto was the first Zero Woman, by the way, in the eyeball-searing 1974 original
. They often appeared together and that's true here too. Ike plays a girl who's trying to wipe out the yakuza. Sugimoto plays a yakuza.
Let me describe the first sixty seconds.
1. Funky 1970s music.
2. Topless dancers in a 1970s nightclub.
3. The director doing a crash zoom across the room, as if this were Graham Williams era Doctor Who.
4. Reiko Ike pulling a knife and trying to stab (male) yakuza, despite looking like a nice girl who'd never normally do a thing like this. I think she kills one of them.
5. Opening credits begin, WITH A THEME SONG!
It's brilliant... and that's just the song. We then go to prison, because that's where Ike's gone. She meets four fellow prisoners, gleefully telling each other about what they did to end up here. One's a pickpocket, another used her body to try to extort money from a flustered guy with a Hitler moustache, etc. They're irrepressible, fizzing like gunpowder that's been lit. They're bad girls, of course, but shameless with it and so likeable that it's impossible not to be engaged by them... except for Sugimoto. As in Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, she's a block of ice. There's something chisel-like about her, although she looks arresting in her flashback when topless and slashing people with a cut-throat razor.
They're also sexy, of course. Chiyoko Kazama is easily the hottest, but unfortunately she only did a handful of films, just like Yumiko Katayama and Masami Soda. It seems a shame and I thought she was doing excellent work, eating up the screen just like all her co-stars, but then again I suppose this isn't a genre where an actress would expect (or even necessarily want) a long career.
Anyway, Ike has been locked up with these jailbirds. She's a nice girl. She doesn't belong there. However she's also making no effort to fit in, being rude enough that it ends in jailyard justice, with a rope, two girls and two pieces of broken glass. The fight that follows is amazing. Ike's character will make your jaw drop, but not because she's any good at fighting. On the contrary, she gets smashed into the tarmac. She loses, and loses, and loses... but she still doesn't give in. She might be dripping blood and about to collapse, but it looks as if she's not going to stop coming until she's actually dead.
They get her story out of her eventually. Yakuza did bad things to her father and to her. She could have told the judge everything at her trial, but she stayed quiet and got sent to prison because she doesn't want the police to sort out the yakuza. She's going to do it herself. She's had the shit kicked out of her and she's rubbish at killing, but that's not going to stop her.
A few years later, the girls get out and then the plot begins in earnest.
To be honest, it hardly seemed like exploitation to me. It just seemed like a good film. You'd happily show it to your friends, regardless of gender. It's not sexist. The main characters are women and they're every bit as tough, tenacious and tattooed as the gangsters they're going to hoodwink and slaughter. They're also beautiful and cool, whereas the men are charmless thugs and full of themselves. In short, the women are in control. The men are mugs. Look at the scene where the yakuza have caught one of the girls and think they can get some information from her. The two most important people there are the women and the men are too busy being dicks even to have noticed.
Alternatively, look at the later scene where the yakuza have caught Reiko Ike. It's not pretty. They've got her trussed and naked (of course) and there will be fists. There will be cigarette ends. They'll even get out a chainsaw, which isn't a rip-off of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because that's a 1974 film and this is 1973. No, the reason they have a chainsaw is because these are the kinds of guys who have chainsaws. However all this effort is to try to get their captive to answer the following knuckle-dragging question (wait for it)... "Who sent you?" It hasn't occurred to them that a woman could be anything but a tool of men. It's only when Sugimoto shows up that that scene really begins.
The same's even true of the finale. Bullets, blood and grenades have flown. All the men have died, including the big bad scumbag (Ryoji Hayama) but it doesn't feel like the film's real punchline. It's the women who matter. Sure enough, there's a Sugimoto-Ike face-off still to come, with knives, in an echo of that mind-blowing jailyard fight near the beginning. We've no idea who'll win. We don't even know if winning is what Ike and/or Sugimoto really want any more, underneath. Now that's what I call a movie ending.
In fairness to the men, though, they're not boring or anything. They're just outclassed. The mad dog psycho was fun, as was the guy who could spit holes in fishtanks.
Technically it is still exploitation, of course. There's plenty of nudity, but it's matter-of-fact instead of being the leering kind you'd be embarrassed to watch in company. There's lots of violence, but no misogyny, sadism or perversion. Your mind won't melt. (The latter's a non-trivial observation, especially for Japanese pink cinema of the era.)
I really liked this one, although I wouldn't pretend it's high cinema. It's a 1970s revenge flick with hot women vs. gangsters. It would have been perfect for Pam Grier, had she been Japanese. It's just a barnstorming example of what it is, with the huge bonus for a modern audience of having sexual politics to make you cheer instead of making you squirm in your seat. It's not going for laughs, thank goodness. It's playing it deadly straight and taking itself seriously. I'd also point at some subtle storytelling touches that make it a bit more than just a potboiler. Firstly, the men could have saved themselves had they bothered to remember Reiko Ike's face from the beginning of the movie. You know, when she was attacking them with a knife. They're killed by their own chauvinism.
The other thing I really like is Reiko Ike's character journey. She starts out as a nice girl who knows nothing about all this and fails pathetically at her first attempt at violence. She talks herself into a prison fight and gets smashed into the dirt. Does she give up? Hell, no. She wins.